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Guiding Eyes for the Blind graduate Kate Lawson with her guide dog, Phil. / Guiding Eyes

Deni Elliott is legally blind and needed more than just any old guide dog. She wanted one with a sense of humor, too.

"I didn't care about color or breed or size or gender. I wanted a dog that could have fun," says Elliott, a professor of media studies in St. Petersburg, Fla., who has progressive bilateral optic neuropathy.

And so it was that the non-profit Guiding Eyes for the Blind matched her up with Alberta, a 3-year-old yellow Labrador retriever. "We're seamless," Elliott says. "We just work together and not just make our way through the world, we strive out into the world with a sense of adventure."

Elliott and Alberta are among 7,000 pairings made by the Guiding Eyes effort. The art of bringing impaired people to a helpful canine is not unlike a marriage: You have to find the right soul mate.

It costs $45,000 to breed, raise, train and match a dog. Guiding Eyes for the Blind provides the service for free. Throughout the nation, dog centers handle many innovative ways to help impaired people; there are specially trained dogs in many areas, such as "peanut dogs" who help their owners with severe allergies avoid even a scent of peanuts.

But for Alberta to become as sharp as she is now, she had to go through extensive training before jumping into Elliott's arms. The training is a key part of preparing the dogs to be ready for their new companions.

Volunteer puppy raisers take in 8-week-old dogs and train them for a year and half. At the Chardon, Ohio, Guiding Eyes branch, one of many training centers around the country, most volunteers are high school students and retired women.

Nina Berschig, 15, of Newbury, Ohio, has been training a German shepherd puppy, Manfred, for three weeks.

If Manfred passes, he will be trained in the busy streets of New York - subways, stairs, crowds of people. Manfred will be tested on things like his ability to walk over a grate and his reaction to a can of coins falling on the ground.

Berschig says she loves dogs and it will be hard to see Manfred go. "It's a lot of hard work, but it is so much fun" to see the animals grow and mature into successful guide dogs, she says.

Another trainer, Kay Redmond, is a 79-year-old woman with long, white hair playfully arranged in pigtails, red lipstick, glasses, gray sweatpants, an athletic jacket and Nike tennis shoes. Redmond, of Concord, Ohio, is no stranger to training guide dogs. She helped train two labs: Lariat, who is still in training, and Sloan, who dropped out of guide dog training and became a pet to a boy with cancer.

"You get very attached to them, but you know going into it that you're not going to keep them for too long," Redmond says.

Pam Stevenson, 60, of Mentor, Ohio, is training her second guide dog - the nephew of her first. She loves the confidence the dogs bring to their human companions. She once heard a story of a dog paired with a shy college student.

"The gal said she never used to go to the cafeteria. She said, 'I'd always eat out of the vending machine, but once I got my dog, I had the confidence to go in the door.' "

Danielle Slover, 40, of Painesville, Ohio, attends practice sessions with her son, Brandon, 16, and his girlfriend, Jaimee Emming, 16, who are getting service hours for high school. The Slover family will be getting a dog to train very soon and have been sitting in on puppy classes to prepare.

For Slover, training a guide dog combines her two loves of special education and animals.

"(We're) a little bit nervous. It's big responsibility. But very, very excited," she said.

The Chardon branch just opened two years ago, and it had its first two dogs graduate from the New York branch this month. The dogs will go to people like Elliott.

"My world now is as big as a guide dog can sense, which is a whole lot bigger than the arc of a cane," Elliott said.

When Elliott started losing her vision in 2000, she pursued a guide dog. During a four-hour home interview, a representative of Guiding Eyes for the Blind inspected Elliott's house and videotaped her movement through the space. Guide dogs retire after six to eight years. Alberta is Elliott's third guide dog.

Alberta never diverts her eyes from Elliott. If Alberta falls asleep, she snoozes with her head on Elliott's foot. Alberta is Elliott's living GPS.

"She's totally devoted me, and I'm totally devoted to her," Elliott says.



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: A best friend to the impaired: Dogs bring more than sight

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